Aboriginal people have inhabited this region for more than 40,000 years. The Methodist Church of Australasia established a mission at Yirrkala in 1935. Over the following decades, members of the 13 clans that owned land in the surrounding area were gradually drawn into the mission. Friction between these different groups was an early problem.
The Yirrkala community became well known in 1963, when landowners sent a bark petition to the Australian Government to protest against the Prime Minister’s announcement that a section of their land would be sold for bauxite mining.
In the 1970s several groups set up outstation communities on their own lands. By the 1980s there were about 10 outstations, with a total population around 200. Today all clans have at least one homeland centre, and many people live partly in Yirrkala and partly in their homelands. In the mid-1970s the church handed control of the mission to the Yirrkala Dhanbul Community Association, which consisted of representatives from the main clans.
In 2008, the Yirrkala Dhanbul Community Association became part of the East Arnhem Shire and the Council took over local government.
Yirrkala is on the east coast of the Gove peninsula in north-east Arnhem Land, 18 km south of Nhulunbuy. Many people live intermittently between Yirrkala and surrounding homelands.
The population of Yirrkala and its surrounds in 2011 was approximately 843, of which 649 were Indigenous (76 per cent). In the same year, the Indigenous population was relatively young, with 35 per cent aged under 20 years (compared to 26 per cent in the total Australian population), and 23 per cent aged 50 years or more (compared to 39 per cent in the total Australian population).
The increasing size and ageing population of Yirrkala will amplify the need for housing, employment opportunities, aged care and health services.
Yolngu Matha is the main language in Yirrkala, but there are different dialects. Yolngu (Aboriginal person) is the name of a group of intermarrying clans who live in the three main townships of Milingimbi, Yirrkala and Galiwin’ku and their surrounding homelands, and whose members speak a dialect of one of a number of closely related languages.
There are 13 clan groups in the community. Together these Yolngu clans formed a social system of religious organisation that differs from neighbouring systems. The Yolngu Matha are divided into two moieties, Yirritja and Dhuwa, and each person inherits membership of a group and its moiety from his or her father.
The Rirratjingu Clan are the traditional owners of Yirrkala.
Traditional ownership of part of the Yirrkala community is being challenged, which may complicate future leasing negotiations. The area contested is where the present community and future new housing is located. There are limited opportunities to expand because of mining leases nearby.
The East Arnhem Regional Council provides local government in Yirrkala, which is in the Council’s Gumurr Miwatj Ward. This is one of six wards in the Council. In 2012 the Gumurr Miwatj Ward elected three (3) of the fourteen (14) Council members. The Council's headquarters are in Nhulunbuy and it has a service delivery centre in Yirrkala which also services Gunyangara.
The Council consults community members through the Local Authority of 12 locally elected community members, the Yirrkala Mala Leaders Association.
The Northern Land Council, based in Darwin and with a regional office in Nhulunbuy, is the land council to the community. It is responsible for matters under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. This includes:
- checking, representing and responding to the wishes and opinions of local Indigenous people about legislation, tourism, development and commercial activities that affect traditional land, and
- helping traditional landowners claim, manage and protect the land.
All of Arnhem Land was proclaimed as an Aboriginal reserve in 1931. The Yolngu people have been recognised as holding native title rights to parts of East Arnhem Land. This includes rights over the sea which co-exist with the rights of commercial and recreational fishers in one of the Northern Territory’s most abundant fishing grounds.